Knowing how to give and take criticism is an essential skill in the workplace, says Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers crop 2

Constructive criticism is something you should expect to receive at work, especially when you are learning. As in any communication at work, the big difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism has a lot to do with how the comments are both delivered and received.

Constructive criticism at its best is valid and well-reasoned opinions or advice. Although it may include negative comments, the intention is to help you improve your work or skills. It is not intended to have a detrimental effect on your morale. It is clear, honest, and direct, and provides specific examples and actionable suggestions for improvement.

Part of the problem is that the difference between this and destructive criticism can be ambiguous, and leaders don’t always get it right. The person delivering the feedback may be pretty sure that they are doing so constructively, but the recipient may perceive things differently.

I have noticed that how people react to constructive criticism has a lot to do with their personal resilience. More resilient people will accept the criticism, chalk it down to experience and move on. People who are more vulnerable or have a strong ‘inner critic’ to deal with, may dwell on what has been said to them. Before they know it, it has a domino effect on their wellbeing and makes them question everything they do. If this is you, remember that constructive criticism is not intended to be personal.

When delivering constructive criticism, leaders need to use their skills of empathy and consider how it is likely to be received. They also need to be conscious about not making assumptions about why something didn’t work out. Is there something going that you don’t know about? Is the person struggling with their workload or with other issues? Open questions to explore what went wrong before wading in with negative feedback can lead to new learning for both of you.

The more detailed and specific you can be, the easier it is for the person to address what is being said and to change things. In the words of Brene Brown, in this as in so many leadership conversations “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind”. The conversation should end with the recipient of the criticism being motivated to improve and knowing exactly what the next step they need to take is to achieve that improvement.

Timing is also important. Letting things fester is never a good idea, but if you open the conversation while emotions are still running high (say you missed a deadline and think this was the fault of a colleague or direct report), things can go badly wrong. Wait until things calm down but not until the next one-to-one or review meeting, when it may assume more importance than necessary and the opportunity for learning is probably already lost.

Learning how to manage your response to constructive criticism is an important part of your professional development. If you are receiving constructive criticism, try to take in everything that is said. If necessary ask questions to ensure you know exactly where your work, on this particular occasion, fell short of what was expected. Try not to react immediately.

It can help to ground yourself physically (both feet on the ground, a couple of deeper breaths) and remember how important it is to receive feedback. Listen closely and focus on understanding what is being said. Another helpful strategy is to take time to ask yourself a couple of questions. Think about the criticism carefully. Is it true? How does what you have heard serve you? Is there something useful to take from it, and what is that?

If you find that it is hard to accept the constructive criticism and not let it affect your whole morale, it can be helpful, and can build your personal resilience, to take a few minutes at the end of each day to think about what went well, to balance things out. You may not always do everything right, but if you ask yourself “What went well today, and what was my role in making that go well?” you may be surprised to see that you get far more things right than you get wrong.